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Music of the heart

Ariane Todes listens to the children of Harlem's Opus 118 project

June 15, 2012

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I haven’t seen Music of the Heart, the 1999 film in which Meryl Streep plays a violin teacher struggling to keep open a strings programme in Harlem. But this evening, I watched the real thing – the end of year concert of the Opus 118 Harlem School of Music, directed by Streep’s model Roberta Guaspari. And an impressive sight it was too: around 120 children, dressed in their finest frocks and shirts, ordered on stage with military precision, row by row, with the little ones at the front, older ones at the back.

On the programme: Suzuki favourites starting with Twinkle, Twinkle, Guaspari standing out front playing phrases for the children to copy. The discipline was impressive, both musically and in stage behaviour, with only the occasional wave to the audience or pose for long lens giving away the lack of professional status. If anything, the little ones were a little too serious, until group hysteria broke out after the performance – for the raffle of a couple of pink violins.

In a moving speech at the end, Aurora Barnes, a former alumnus who had appeared at the 1993 Carnegie Hall fundraiser for the project, alongside Perlman and Stern, described what students get from the programme, from the first moment they try to join: ‘You learn to fight!’ Opus 118 survives, 21 years on, although from the introduction we were given by the chairman of the board Mark Torchia it sounds like nothing can be taken for granted financially. The final piece on the programme seemed appropriate: We Shall Overcome.

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